A Glass of Chianti

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Passions and art, part 2 (of 3)

I think the source of much misunderstanding (and misevalutaion) is when we confuse the message, the messenger and the medium. In the case of the piece that I've been harping upon (and I know we're all sick of it by now. I think it's the last time it will come up...) a great message and messenger just didn't translate through the medium very well for me. I think that my resistance to the Bechtle exhibit (addressed briefly here and in the comments) was a case of the message getting caught up in my relative youth and inexperience.

The important thing to remember that great artists produce things that aren't great from time to time. (Classic example: Beethoven's Wellington's Victory*.) In the same vein, just because an artist produces great things doesn't mean that he is great, or (relatedly) that his opinions are relevant on any subject outside his art at all.

When does any of this really matter? Well, in practice for most people - not ever**. Enjoying art sans information about the artists' lives isn't going to prevent you from recognizing the pieces that are great. Go to the museum. Have fun! Listen to new things. If they interest you, learn about them, but don't think that that process is going to automatically enhance your appreciation of the work. Many times you'll come away disappointed that the creator thinks he is a great philosopher but can't compose a coherent thought. He might be a drunkard. You may find out that he advocates blowing up your country. Does this change your evaluation of the work he produced? Should it? Does finding this out change your opinion of him as an artist? As a human being? Would you commission him to do a piece for you, knowing what you know?

Listening to Copland doesn't make you a Communist sympathizer. Appreciating The Birth of a Nation doesn't mean that you're bigot.

All that being said, I know that I enjoy reading about artists. I like to find out which ones are technicians and are functionally illiterate outside their own work and which ones dabble in other fields. I like to know which artists are great thinkers and which ones think they are. Who would I most likely get along with at a party? If I met this guy on the street, what subject or interests would we have in common? What could we talk about? All of those questions, though, are really unrelated to a judgment about what makes their art compelling or not. It (art) is bigger than either of us.

*I always wanted to make this into a parlor game***, but I have neither the invitations to parties nor the mental library of popular music references to do so. What are contemporary "Wellington's Victories?" What is the greatest misstep of a universally acknowledged great singer or band? Who's star shines brightly but has one glaring blemish? Did they recover and it is politely overlooked or was it their demise?
**I think it only matters when you are commissioning work. As with most things that warm my non-professional economist heart, it all comes down to transactions and getting what you want out of them.****
***This is probably why I'm not invited to parties.
****See immediately previous note